Central to Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar Raj are plans for the construction of a Rs 20,000 crore power plant that will light up the whole of Maharashtra. Closely following the plot of this headache-inducing film was well beyond my fragile capabilities, but as far as I could tell this is what happens next: various bad-asses in Gujarat don’t like the fact that Maharashtra will be lit up. So lots of people are killed. Incensed, the state of Maharashtra breaks free from the Indian Union and drifts across the Arabian Sea to join the eastern coast of Africa, where there are no electricity problems. Then some more people are killed. Then Aishwarya Rai, in a sharp businesswoman suit, weeps silently. Then some people are killed. Then Rai asks for a cup of tea and Amitabh Bachchan asks for a chiku and the film ends.
It’s worth noting that despite various complicated plot twists and lots of murderous double-crossing, the power plant is never actually built. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is the reason why the film is so unremittingly dark. By “dark”, I don’t mean the subject matter: I mean that the film is, quite literally, dark. In other words, there appear to be no electricity sources in the house where most of the action takes place. ("Power cannot be given," says the film's tagline accurately.) Not a tube-light or ceiling fan in sight, which means that the scariest and most unsettling scenes are the ones where someone elects to wear sun-glasses. When you think of it, it makes perfect sense that the one time a character has the temerity to ask for an air-conditioner to be switched on (horrors!), she instantly pays for it with her life. It’s the most startling murder in the film, but also the most thematically justified one. What could the foolish woman have been thinking?
Interestingly, on the very few occasions that there are light sources, the cameraman shoots directly into them, so that tiny circular spots show up on the screen, often right on a character's face. You might argue that this is deliberately done, in the style of the Dogme filmmakers. I would say that the editors weren’t on the job. In fact, if the sets had been better lit, we might have seen three or four boom mikes protruding from the ceiling, and perhaps Amar Singh waddling around somewhere in the background.
Actually, the look of this film didn’t surprise me much, because self-conscious gloominess has long been a staple of RGV’s cinema. He seems to frame nearly every shot as if to shout out to the audience, “See what I’m doing here with composition?” In an earlier post on RGV’s Aag, I suggested that the film’s remarkably drunken camera movements were accomplished by making the cinematographer consume lots of hooch and then stagger around the sets with the shooting equipment tied around his waist. Pretty much the same thing happens throughout Sarkar Raj, except that the cameraman also gets to lie down a couple of times.
As always, there is an element of barely suppressed hysteria in nearly every performance – many pauses, lots of uncompleted and interrupted sentences, as if the performers have forgotten their lines (or weren’t given any to start with), many shots of people starting to say something but then looking away. I think it’s called Realism. (To remind us that her dramatic performance in Provoked wasn’t a fluke, Aishwarya bites her lips a few times. I think it’s called Ruining your Makeup.)
Sadistically, the film’s soundtrack maintains a “Govinda, Govinda, Govinda” chant nearly all the way through; I agree with what J.A.P. says in a comment on Baradwaj’s post that this is a cruel reminder that we could instead have been watching something starring the Viraar ka chokra. However, I also think this film could have done with an extended friendly appearance by Salman Khan – you know, the sort where he shows up towards the end and sets everything right (in this case, by nudging Maharashtra back across the sea) before skipping away into the sunset. In fact, I propose that every Hindi film made from this point on should contain an extended friendly appearance by Salman Khan. It's the only foolproof way to make a good film.
(Jokes aside, I thought Sarkar Raj was undiluted crap. Terrible neck-aches and head-aches proliferate, which is why I've had to write this post standing up.)